Best viewed as a rehearsal for his classic The Wild Bunch (1969), this Sam Peckinpah western covers much of the same thematic ground – feuding friends, Mexico, betrayal, comradeship, brutality, and a grand gesture climax. But the set-up is more complicated than The Wild Bunch. This time out Unionist Charlton Heston in the titular role and former friend Confederate Richard Harris team up towards the end of the American Civil War to hunt down a band of Apaches. Heston’s prisoner, Harris faces the choice of joining his unit or being shot. Since both lived in the South, Harris sees Heston as a traitor for siding with the North. After the Apaches are destroyed, Harris plans to kill Heston.
If the set-up was as straightforward as that, it would have probably resulted in a better film. But once Heston’s soldiers cross the Rio Grande they also come up against the French. And the timescale of the picture covers a complete campaign from November 1864 to April 1865, barely a month before the end of the Civil War so the pace is sluggish despite being packed with incident. And it struggles with allowing the weight of narration – via the cliched diary – to fall on a young bugler (Michael Anderson Jr.), the only survivor of an Apache attack.
That said, the action sequences are terrific, especially the battle on the Rio Grande itself. Like the best military movies, there are clever maneuvers and deceptions – from both sides. And since the unit comprises not only the quarreling Heston and Harris but warring Unionists and Confederates, freed former slaves and a bunch of criminals in the same league as Robert Ryan’s Wild Bunch gang the tension remains high throughout. Subsidiary characters are given a full story arc – the raw lieutenant (Jim Hutton) making his bones, the bugler losing his virginity. Added to this, Major Dundee is clearly in the last chance saloon, his posting seen as a punishment, and several times his military decisions are, rightly, called into question. His attitude to command is also questionable, minus his uniform in the field and legs on the table while addressing junior officers. And, as with The Wild Bunch, this is no idealized Mexico, but an impoverished, savaged, ravaged country.
There was no romance in Peckinpah’s original take on the story. But the presence of Senta Berger as a widowed Austrian stranded in Mexico brings out the humanity in Heston. Unlike many of her more volatile Latin counterparts, Berger is soft-spoken and gentle. Here, that acts very much as a counterbalance to the pugnacious Heston. She is fearless, effectively acting as the leader of the Mexican village the soldiers initially intend to pillage, persuading them otherwise. She demonstrates considerable intelligence: “The war won’t last forever,” says Heston; “It will for you,” she replies. But, ultimately, she is betrayed by the womanizing Heston.
In the duel between old friends, Harris comes off best in terms of principle. He defuses an ugly racial incident and clearly commands more authority among his men. When difficult action must be taken regarding a deserter again he does not hesitate to act. And he keeps to his word of honoring a flag he despises as long as he is under Heston’s leadership. In some senses, he has the better part since he has to keep normal impulse in check. Many critics considered Heston miscast but that was mostly after the fact when Peckinpah was able to line up a more dissolute William Holden in The Wild Bunch because by that time the actor was already wasted physically from alcoholism. But Major Dundee’s inability to meet his own high standards is exactly the kind of role you want to see a physical specimen like Heston take on.
Half a century after initial release, another dozen minutes were added to the movie as part of an overall restoration, and the film was acclaimed by critics as a lost masterpiece. That was a rather rose-tinted perspective and, although the extra footage clarified some points, in general it did not lift the confusion surrounding the narrative. The movie needed fewer minutes not more. The deletion of the entire French section would have prevented the movie sinking under the weight of its own ambition. Certainly, the studio Columbia played its part in undermining the movie by shaving too much from the budget just as shooting was about to begin. It is still a decent effort and without it, and perhaps learning from his mistakes, the director might never had turned The Wild Bunch into a masterpiece.
Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.
Since this is my 100th blog, I am in celebratory mood and hope to convince you that The Undefeated is one of the most under-rated westerns of all time. (Be warned – this is longer than my normal reviews.)
While John Wayne was at a career peak, Rock Hudson was in a trough. Wayne had just posted his biggest-ever box office figures for True Grit, which had opened in the summer, the first western ever shown at the Radio City Music Hall, the country’s biggest auditorium with nearly 6,000 seats, although it was advertised as an ‘outdoor adventure.’ He had appeared on the covers of both “Time” and “Life” magazines, and was being talked-up as a genuine Oscar contender. True Grit was proving to have such popular appeal that, in the year of Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, it would finish sixth on the annual box office rankings, just shading the former and well ahead of the latter.
Rock Hudson had ended up nearly at the top of another list – of the worst-performing stars at the box office, according to Variety his last five pictures tallying a total of $8.5million. After a decade at the top of the trees, segueing from Douglas Sirk melodramas to Doris Day comedies, he had come unstuck with John Frankenheimer’s black-and-white experimental Seconds (1966), derided at the Cannes Film Festival and ignored by ticket buyers, and thereafter gone downhill fast with Blindfold (1966), Tobruk (1967), A Fine Pair (1968), and MGM’s big-budget Cinerama Ice Station Zebra (1968).
Director Andrew V. McLaglen, son of Victor McLaglen (The Informer, 1935), got his break on John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952). Wayne provided the guarantee four years later for McLaglen Jr. to make his first foray into direction, the western Gun the Man Down. After making a splash in television – over 200 episodes of Have Gun Will Travel and around 100 of Gunsmoke – his career moved into higher gear with McLintock (1963), Shenandoah (1965) and The Rare Breed (1966). Three further westerns followed – The Way West (1967), The Ballad of Josie (1967) and Bandolero! (1968) – before diversifying into oil wildcatting adventure Hellfighters (1968).
McLaglen was the victim of two erroneous assumptions. The first was that he was happy to be type cast as a director of westerns. He refuted this notion in an interview for Conversations on Film and claimed that “it’s the way my course was laid out for me,” suggesting that, in the early days at least, he had little control over the kind of projects for which he was deemed most suitable. Secondly, he was unfairly condemned as a “journeyman” director, an unworthy successor to John Ford, although Christopher Frayling put it more kindly when he asserted that McLaglen was a “figurative painter when everyone else had gone abstract,” indicating that the director was out of keeping with the times.
However, this was equally unfair, since in the 1960s, until Sam Peckinpah produced The Wild Bunch, there had been no real contenders for the Ford crown apart from a critic-driven revival of the 1950s films of Budd Boetticher long after he had stopped making them while Anthony Mann’s decade-long love affair with the western had ended with the dismal Cimarron (1960). U.S. recognition of Sergio Leone was slow in coming. Other directors considered as candidates such as John Sturges (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 1957; The Magnificent Seven, 1960) proved too erratic, while the likes of Henry Hathaway had only consistently turned to the genre in the 1960s. McLaglen was underrated as a director of westerns, McLintock hugely enjoyable, Shenandoah belonging close to the top rank, and, as I shall attempt to prove, The Undefeated a far better movie than given credit for. While not in itself a masterpiece in the category of Once Upon a Time in the West or The Wild Bunch, it is McLaglen’s masterpiece.
Wayne played Unionist colonel John Henry Thomas and Hudson his opposite number in the Confederacy Col. James Langdon. The rest of the cast was composed of newcomers like Michael (later Jan Michael) Vincent and Melissa Newman (not the daughter of Paul), pro-football players Merlin Olsen and Roman Gabriel of the Los Angeles Rams, members of the John Ford stock company like Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr, and Mexican actor-singer Antonio Aguilar. The movie was filmed on a 1,600 acre plantation in Louisiana and in and around Durango in Mexico. Nonetheless, at $7.2 million, it had a bigger budget than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Planet of the Apes (1968), which cost $6.8 million, $4.6 million and $5.8 million, respectively.
I don’t usually begin a discussion of a film by examining its composition but I am making an exception with The Undefeated. I had come to this picture with vague memories of having seen it on original release in second- or possibly third-run at my local theater. I do not recall being particularly impressed, although at that age I had not formed any critical faculties for the evaluation of the western, nor any movie for that matter, being only 16 or 17 at the time. As a result, I did not hold out much hope for the movie when it came to the current re-evaluation, in part because it lacked the critical status of The Wild Bunch or Once Upon a Time in the West, which I had viewed many times since their original release, and in part because it had not been a box office or critical hit and therefore subject to the theatrical reissue, continuous television programming and re-evaluation that had accompanied The Wild Bunchor Once Upon a Time in the West.
What struck me most was how Andrew V. McLaglen constructed the movie on screen. A substantial number of scenes were in long shot, but, unlike, say True Grit, the director made more consistent use of the divisions between background, center and foreground. Most often by using the 3,000 horses as the long distance focal point in the middle of the screen, or a line of cavalry, the director achieved a fine separation of elements that, to me, at least appeared to show a mastery of composition. The screen, lengthways, was consistently divided into three, or four. Sometimes the entire action took place in the bottom half of the screen, the upper part reserved for sky or sky peering through mountains. Like a traditional landscape painter, McLaglen would work with the horizon line, sometimes with a vanishing point. It seemed to me that an artist, in the most ordinary sense of the word, was at work. This conceptual approach is apparent from the very start. When a rider arrives to announce to the Union troops that the Civil War is over, half the screen is sky.
What does let the movie down is the story. The basic concept – the reconciliation of deadly enemies – is an intriguing one and more than enough to carry the picture, but, the plot is overly complicated and the ending, while in one respect emotionally satisfying, is an anti-climax. In post-Civil War America, a group of ex-Union soldiers and a contingent of former Confederate soldiers (plus families) both converge on Mexico, but for different reasons. The Union soldiers, led by Col Thomas, are intent on selling a herd of 3,000 wild horses to the Mexican army, while Col. Langdon’s Confederates are taking their weapons and money in the same direction but in the hope of setting up a second front in order to continue the fight against the Unionists.
On the way, both groups encounter double-dealing, the Mexicans attempt to renege on the agreement to buy the wild horses, while the rebels are taken hostage by, ironically enough, forces in opposition to the existing Mexican government. The Unionists come to the rescue of the Confederates twice, once in a rousing battle against bandits, and, at the climax, by trading their horses (and their futures) for their former enemies’ lives. But this is an unsatisfactory conclusion since, to complete the circle, it should have been the Confederates baling the Unionists out of trouble, and therefore, honors even, they can come to a peaceful accommodation.
The movie opens with a battered Confederate flag. The camera tracks left along lines of grey-uniformed soldiers waiting for the expected attack. Almost immediately, their ranks are decimated by cannon fire followed by a Union cavalry charge, sabers cutting the defending soldiers to ribbons, Colonel John Henry Thomas (John Wayne) in the thick of the action, a Confederate flag abandoned on the ground. As a rider brings news of the cessation of hostilities, the camera, from Thomas’s point-of-view lingers on the dead. Thomas seeks out the enemy to accept their surrender.
To his astonishment, the Confederates already know that peace has been agreed when they continued fighting and, as far as the rebel commanding officer is concerned, the war is not over. “Are you telling me,” asks an incredulous Thomas, “that you intend to keep fighting?” The officer replies, “Haven’t we just proven it?” A few minutes into the picture, the entire concept is established, emotional sides taken, Unionists exhibiting disbelief, Confederates appearing resolute.
Mustachioed and resplendent in a Southern uniform that incorporates a cape and a hat with a feather in it, the dashing Colonel James Langdon (Rock Hudson) spells out his post-war secret mission to his troops, a 2,000-mile trip to Mexico, arms and ammunition and uniforms hidden at the bottom of wagons, their rendezvous, 500 miles south of the border, in Durango leading to being escorted by representatives of Emperor Maximilian to the country’s capital. Langdon sets fire to their grand mansion as a romantic subplot unfolds involving two juveniles, Langdon’s daughter Charlotte (Melissa Newman) and the slightly older Bubba Wilkes (Michael Vincent).
Thomas hands in his resignation, explaining that the 10 men remaining out of the 75 he recruited three years prior takes priority over continuing as a soldier. “Those left deserve more than a pat on the back from some newspaper editor and I’m gonna see they get it,” he snaps, as he leads his men away on their mission, to round up 3,000 horses to sell to the U.S. Army. What do men do while they wait around, capture flies as in Once Upon a Time in the West, or bicker as The Wild Bunch? Like Peckinpah’s squad, these men like to make fun of each other and, reminiscent of the scene when Warren Oates is teased over a bottle of whiskey, the ex-soldiers toss a chew of tobacco around until one stops after catching sight of approaching Indians.
In a mild twist, these are not enemies, but a group led by Blue Blood (Roman Gabriel), who, in another twist, we learn later, is Thomas’s adopted son – a major twist, in fact, if we are the homage business, given The Searchers (1956) when Ethan Edwards is dedicated to hunting down and killing Debbie (Natalie Wood) simply because she has lived with Indians after being kidnapped. The arrival of the riders is typical of McLaglen’s compositional skills: the men appear in long shot below the horizon. The screen, in reality, is divided into two – sky at the top, land at the bottom. Crammed into the middle is a tiny stretch of men.
We cut the first rousing adventure scene, a two-minute scene of the lassoing, capture and breaking-in of thousands of horses, the screen filled with images of the racing animals. As Col. Langdon’s wagon train sets off, Charlotte tells her beau that she is “looking for something more substantial” in a man than this lovelorn youth, as if she has quickly grown up during the war. Thomas and Short Grub (Ben Johnson) head off to a staging post for a meeting with the agents who buy horses for the government but instead they come into contact with a “couple of popinjays” representing Emperor Maximilian and willing to buy the entire herd. The loyal Thomas rejects their offer out of hand until, in an attempt to defraud him, the government agents offer him $10 less per horse than the going market rate, and for a fraction of the herd.
Summary justice, in the form of a punch, is meted out to the agents. In the middle of a fog we learn that the Confederates are being pursued by Union Cavalry intent on turning them round. When Langdon hears the Union horses he orders his wagon train to race the enemy to the Rio Grande. Once across, there is a close-up of the Confederate flag and McLaglen pulls back to reveal the train of wagons which takes up only the bottom half of the screen, the upper half entirely sky. Thomas faces the same dilemma and only a massive stampede of the horses sees them safely across.
As 1969 westerns are filled with dreamers (Butch Cassidy filling his head with ideas of Bolivia and, later, Australia; Omar Sharif’s bandit in Mackenna’s Gold dreaming of Paris), there is a short scene among Thomas’s men when they talk about what they will do with the money they will earn. Most of their notions are relatively mundane but one entertains a vision of a small library under a big elm. Thomas is in no mood for such frivolities, going to sleep with his guns cocked, telling his men, “We’re Americans in Mexico taking horses to a very unpopular government.”
Blue Blood, who has been scouting ahead, returns the next morning to inform Thomas that he has found a box canyon four miles ahead where there is forage and water for the horses. But he also warns that he came across two trails, the first of wagons and horses, and the second, following the first, about 40 riders. “I’d suspect an ambush,” says Thomas. When Blue Blood and Thomas go off to investigate they find the Confederates. In a nod to the opening shot, McLaglen gives a close-up of the rebel flag, this time in pristine condition. Approaching the wagon train, arranged in a circle, they explain the situation to Langdon, who asks what the bandits could be after. “Gold, horses, women,” replies Thomas, at which point Langdon’s wife Margaret (Lee Meriwether) and sister-in-law Ann (Marian McCargo) Ann look up.
This is another twist, or will be, for what happens to captured women has been a constant theme of westerns, especially in 1969, the treatment of white women at the hands of Indians forming a central plank of The Stalking Moon and Mackenna’s Gold, and any women taken by any men in 100 Rifles, The Wild Bunch and True Grit. Hatred for an enemy being subsumed by Southern hospitality, Langdon shares a whisky with Thomas who learns that Langdon’s son was killed at Shiloh, an engagement in which Thomas participated. Meanwhile, Blue Blood who has been making eyes at Charlotte, is send by Thomas on an errand.
Next day the night picket returns, strapped to his horse, and dead. Captain Anderson (Edward Faulkner) suspects Blue Blood is involved, but Thomas reveals Blue Blood is his adopted son, information that receives a glance from Ann as she cocks her rifle. As Thomas gives her some advice, “Windage and elevation” we suspect this may be the beginning of a romance. But the Mexican leader is not open to negotiation. “We want everything,” he says, “We want wagons, horses, guns, and gold and you also have some women.”
Bearing in mind that Thomas is a soldier rather than a frontiersman or a citizen of the West who, in confrontation, would not, in the grand Hollywood tradition, shoot first, it still comes as a surprise when Thomas simply kills the Mexican as a solider would employ the element of surprise. Back at the wagons, Thomas is upbraided by Ann, “Why did you have to shoot him?” His dry response, “Conversation kind of dried up,” would not have been out of place in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and while there are many other funny quips, and while McLaglen has an eye – and ear – for comedy as demonstrated in previous films, there is a big difference in audience response between lines delivered by the amiable Butch Cassidy and those uttered by the no-nonsense Thomas.
Maintaining compositional discipline, the battle begins with McLaglen creating a shot that places the wagons horizontally in the bottom quarter of the screen, the line of charging bandits above them but still below the screen’s halfway point, with the rest of the picture taken up with two huge rocks on either side of the screen with the sky peeking through them. The bandits are beaten off. Ann says to Thomas, “Tell me they’re leaving.”
If romance is brewing,McLaglen’s shorthand method of showing it is simply to put them in the same frame without resorting to anything more intimate. “No, ma’am,” replies Thomas, “they’re reforming to charge again.” He pauses, “At least that’s their plan.”
What follows is easily the best action scene in the picture, especially as it is entirely done in long shot and not, as others would be tempted to do, with lots of close-ups of individual pieces of action. As the bandits race away to reform, they head for the shelter of rocks where they are ambushed by the rest of Thomas’s outfit. When they twist away to escape the relentless gunfire, Blue Blood leads his band of Indians in a charge against them and the Mexican bandits are routed.
The symmetry of the action as the bandits race from one side of the screen to the other, encountering conflict at every turn, is stunning. Following the battle, Thomas confides in Langdon that he was at the battle where Ann lost her husband. In part, this is further shorthand, Thomas expecting such a revelation, which clearly he expects the Confederate to pass on, to kill off any incipient romance, but, in the wider emotional context, it binds the former enemies together, not in conflict, but in sadness for what they have all lost. Winners and losers, McLaglen appears to point out, all suffer the same losses. Meanwhile, Charlotte and Blue Blood are getting closer, the Indian having waved his hat in her direction on his triumphant return, the girl’s eyes lighting up at the sight.
No sooner has Thomas returned to his own camp than his men are invited back to join the Confederates to celebrate the Fourth of July. One of the reasons for Thomas to grow closer to Ann is a technical one, so that he can unburden himself. Romance, if it is that, is not advanced one iota except for the way the woman listens to the man, who recounts his own tale without prompting and without being accused of being uncommunicative and without it being beaten out of him.
It turns out that Thomas was once married but his wife left him. “She was so busy being a lady that she forgot to be a woman.” She objected to him going off hunting but, most of all, she did not want children so he adopted Blue Blood and is “as proud of him as if he were my own blood.” The adoption of the Indian was not as odd as all that in 1969 western iteration, Glenn Ford brought up by Indian in Smith! (1969) and, two years before, in Hombre (1967) Paul Newman’s character nurtured by Indians, but those were matters of chance not individual decision, a child has no say in who brings it up, but for an adult male to choose to adopt an Indian boy is a different story altogether.
Nothing more is made of Blue Blood’s adoption, but, as loyal viewers of many westerns over many years, audiences will have grown accustomed to romances between an Indian and a white woman hitting the skids.
But just as the movie clicks into gear, with two incipient romances and bandits thwarted, the question of the Confederate dream still unresolved, issues regarding the acceptance of Indians into society under discussion, former enemies halfway to reconciliation by fighting together against a common foe, both groups still to conclude their missions, the script almost destroys the fine work so far by introducing a western stereotype – the fistfight. As usual, there is no good reason, plot-wise, Thomas and Langdon dragged in, until the unnecessary fracas (with the usual side helping of low comedy) is halted by Ann firing a rifle.
Thomas and his men take their and comes across buzzards scavenging the French troops[i] sent by Emperor Maximilian to meet the Confederates. Blue Blood races off to warn the Confederates and, invited to stay the night, kisses Charlotte and, as a consequence, is beaten up by Wilkes and Captain Anderson who send him away. Later, the Indian spots Mexican troops. Meanwhile, Thomas, awaiting a rendezvous with the Mexican agents, is annoyed that his team have lost 500 horses on the journey (none of this has been dramatized) and worried that Blue Blood is three days late.
There is a nice exchange worthy of the self-delusion exhibited in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid between Thomas and Short Grub. The latter says, “I’d be thinking that he’s made off with that little Reb girl and he’d be just about by Rio Grande by this time.” Thomas replies, “That’s what I’m thinking.” Short Grub continues, “He wouldn’t do that.” Thomas agrees, “He wouldn’t do that,” while his expression shows the opposite. The agents count 2,505 horses and promise money is on its way.
Langdon’s party reaches Durango to the Confederate flag being raised and a local band playing Dixie. Host General Rojas (Antonio Aguilar) lays on a welcoming banquet. But it is a trap they are surrounded by gunman on the rooftops. “Consider yourselves prisoners of the revolution,” explains Rojas. Now Langdon’s contingent are held hostage until Thomas’s herd is brought in exchange. This is the worst possible dilemma for a Southerner. “I’m not asking any Yankee for anything,” blusters Langdon, at which point one of the Confederates is dragged in front of the firing squad, and Langdon has no option but to capitulate. Rojas sets a deadline of “noon tomorrow” or all will be shot. Blue Blood is in the crowd, and at night, when Charlotte is set upon by Mexicans he rushes to her rescue.
At the cowboy camp, Langdon explains the situation. The Unionists agree to help. But the Mexican government has no intention of paying for the herd when they can as easily steal it by force of arms. A regiment of cavalry will do the enforcing. Seizing the initiative, Thomas sets the herd on collision course with the Mexicans, leading the stampede two wagons bristling with guns.
The attack takes the Mexicans by surprise, the wild horses punching through the cavalry line, rifles picking off the enemy, Langdon slashing with his sabre. In Durango, with time running out, the General begins selecting Confederates to face the firing squad but just at that moment Rojas hears approaching hooves. All are saved. Blue Blood kisses Charlotte. Thomas, Langdon and Rojas drink to Juarez, the Mexican rebel leader.
Now comes the final twist for students of the American western of 1969. Many of the key pictures of the year had involved escape of one kind or another. The Wild Bunch take refuge in Mexico, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Bolivia. All the refugees have no intention of returning home. Only in The Undefeated do the would-be escapees return home, having resolved their differences rather than running away from them. While that is an intriguing ending – Langdon resolving to run for the House of Representatives, Charlotte determined to go with Blue Blood to his home, the romance between Thomas and Ann remaining, unusually for a western, unresolved – the incidents leading up to this are, for many, anti-climactic.
Whether the ending has been truncated for reasons of running time or because McLaglen believed a longer scene showing the herd racing towards Durango and the clock ticking away was redundant is unknown. As it stands, the ending convinces me, although, to Hollywood, the idea of Americans helping foreigners overthrow their government always provides an easy get-out clause, and, as I mentioned before, in order for the picture to run full circle, it should be the Confederates who save the Unionists’ skin.
Nonetheless, it is a bold decision to end the picture in this fashion, and although the movie is not seen as having a political point to make, what could be more political, at the height of the Vietnam War, than of finding a way for bitter enemies to put aside their enmity and resolve to work together in the future? The film ends in compromise, riding out, returning as companions not enemies, to the U.S., they play “Yankee Doodle Dandy” instead of, in an echo to an earlier scene, the divisive “Battle Hymn of The Republic” or “Dixie.”
This is another impressive performance from John Wayne, especially as his character is fully-formed by his experiences in the Civil War, where, unlike the traditional western, the good guy does not need to wait for the other fellow to draw first and an astute commander will take the enemy by surprise. This is Wayne in a more thoughtful register, looking after his adopted son and the soldiers he has equally “adopted,” able to speak openly about regret and accepting the part he played, courtesy of the war, in inflicting grief on others. Gung-ho is long gone.
The actor cracked a couple of ribs during filming so for some weeks could only be filmed from one camera position, but that appears to have been no limitation on his performance, which is considerably more rounded than in the past. Had there been no True Grit between this and Hellfighters, his performance might have been praised. For a country still rooted in bigotry and inflamed by race hatred at the end of the 1960s, Wayne, taking on a role where he espoused racial appeasement and where he accepted the sadness war inevitably inflicts on families regardless of which side they are on, sounds like the opposite to his character in The Green Berets.
Rock Hudson is a shade over-the-top in his portrayal of Colonel Langdon but movies work best with opposites and it would not do if he was as reflective as Wayne. Nobody came within a mile of Oscar consideration but spare a thought for Marian McCargo’s quiet dignity as the widow.
As I mentioned at the outset, what impressed me most was McLaglen’s cinematic handling, the consistent way in which he used the screen, a discipline he maintained right up to the end when the screen is divided in two by the Rio Grande with in the bottom half the wagon train itself splitting the screen by going up the its middle. Should anyone decide to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Undefeated by showing it on the big screen, then take the opportunity of seeing exactly why Andrew V. McLaglen should not be denigrated as a “journeyman” director.
Sophia Loren is enjoying a swansong with the Netflix feature The Life Ahead (2020), which may well net here another Oscar nomination to add to two wins for Two Women (1960) and an Honorary Award in 1991 and a previous nomination for Marriage Italian-Style (1964). She has dined at the Hollywood high table for over 60 years since taking America by storm in 1957 in a three-film blast comprising Boy on a Dolphin with Alan Ladd, The Pride and the Passion with Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra and Legend of the Lost with John Wayne. She was one of the greatest leading ladies of the second half of the twentieth century, combining style with ability. If you want an idea of how mesmerising she was in her pomp, check out this little number – Heller in Pink Tights.
Taken on its own merits, George Cukor’s western is a highly enjoyable romp. Hardly your first choice for the genre, Cukor ignores the tenets laid down by John Ford and Howard Hawks and the film is all the better for it. Although there are stagecoach chases, gunfighters and Native Americans, don’t expect upstanding citizens rescuing good folk.
Instead of stunning vistas Cukor chooses to spend his budget on lavish costumes and sets. You can see he knows how to use a colour palette, and there is red or a tinge of it in every scene (to the extent of rather a lot of red-haired folk), and although this might not be your bag – and you may not even notice it – it is what makes a Cukor production so lush. The film might start with comedic overtones but by the end you realise it is serious after all.
Sophia Loren is the coquettish leading lady and Anthony Quinn the actor-manager of a theatrical company managing to stay one step ahead of its creditors, in the main thanks to Loren’s capacity for spending money she doesn’t have. Of course, once a gunfighter (Steve Forrest) wins Loren in a poker game, things go askew. Quinn had never convinced me as a romantic lead, but here there is genuine charisma between the two stars.
Loren is at her most alluring, in dazzling outfits and occasionally in costumes as skin-tight as censors would allow in those days, but with a tendency to use beauty as a means to an end, with the conviction that a smile (or occasionally more) will see her out of any scrape. There is no doubt she is totally beguiling. But that is not enough for Quinn, as she is inclined to include him in her list of dupes.
While primarily a love story crossed with a tale of theatrical woes set against the backdrop of a western, when it comes to dealing with the tropes of the genre Cukor blows it out of the water. We open with a stagecoach chase but our heroes are only racing away from debt until they reach the safety of a state line. We have a gunfighter, but instead of a shoot-out being built up, minutes ticking by as tension rises, Cukor’s gunman just shoots people in sudden matter-of-fact fashion.
Best of all, Cukor extracts tremendous comedy from the overbearing actors, each convinced of their own genius, and the petty jealousies and intrigue that are endemic in such a troupe. An everyday story of show-folk contains as much incipient drama as the more angst-ridden A Star Is Born (1954), his previous venture into this arena. From the guy who gave us The Philadelphia Story (1940) with all its sophisticated comedy, it’s quite astonishing that Cukor extracts so much from a picture where the laughs, mostly from throwaway lines, are derived from less substantial material.
Quinn (his third film in a row with Cukor) has never been better, no Oscar-bait this time round, just a genuine guy, pride always to the forefront, king of his domain inside his tiny theatrical kingdom, out of his depth in the big wide world, and unable to contain the “heller.” I won’t spoil it for you but there are two wonderful character-driven twists that set the world to rights.
There is a tremendous supporting cast with former silent film star Ramon Novarro (Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, 1925) as a duplicitous businessman, former child star Margaret O’Brien, another star from a previous era in Edmund Lowe (Cukor’s Dinner at Eight, 1933), and Eileen Eckhart. Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach, 1939) and Walter Bernstein, who wrote a previous Loren romance That Kind of Women (1959) and had a hand in The Magnificent Seven (1960), do an excellent job of adapting the Louis L’Amour source novel Heller with a Gun, especially considering that contained an entirely different story.
If ever a movie was in sore need of reappraisal it’s Richard Wilson’s western, which encountered both audience and critical indifference on initial release. If you’ve heard of Wilson at all it will, hopefully, either be down to his connection with Orson Welles or from his crime duo Capone (1959) with Rod Steiger and Pay or Die (1960) with Ernest Borgnine. On the other hand, you may be more familiar with the name from the Ma and Pa Kettle series in the 1950s or perhaps raunchy comedy Three in the Attic (1968). Or because he was an unlikely contender for the triple-hyphenate position (writer-producer-director) held on the Hollywood scene by the likes of Billy Wilder and less-heralded figures such as John Lemont on the recently-reviewed The Frightened City (1961).
Wilson was not first choice to direct since the western had been on the Stanley Kramer company slate since 1957 when it was planned for Paul Stanley before it moved in 1961 into Hubert Cornfield’s orbit with a script by James Lee Barratt and then repossessed by Kramer when Rod Steiger was briefly attached. The film, backed financially by Kramer, barely rates a paragraph in the director’s autobiography in which he describes the picture as “an adult western with a somewhat complicated plot.” There’s no getting past the fact that the plot is complicated, but it’s not the plot but the characters that held me in thrall. Kramer thought the film contained elements of High Noon (1952). But for me the starting point was surely The Magnificent Seven (1960) and not just because Yul Brynner played a gunfighter complete with black outfit and cigar. It wasn’t Brynner’s look in the previous western that brought me to that conclusion, but the scene where the gunfighters sit around talking about where their career has taken them – to precisely nowhere: no wives, no family, no home.
Invitation to a Gunfighter makes more sense as an adult sequel to The Magnificent Seven than any of that movie’s other retreads. Imagine that Brynner, despite the boost to his esteem from beating the Mexican bandits, had not shaken off what we would most likely classify these days as a malaise or a depression. He is trying to make sense of a life that has proved unfulfilled. His options are salvation or suicide. At some point he will come up against a quicker gun, so it is suicide to continue in this profession.
But this Brynner is also close kin to Clint Eastwood’s man with no name, the mercenary who takes full advantage of his power in lawless towns, and especially to the later embodiment of such a character in High Plains Drifter (1973). (Perhaps Eastwood got the idea of renaming the town ‘Hell’ and painting it red from the scene where Brynner, fed up with the hypocrisy of the righteous townspeople, goes on a drunken wrecking spree.) However, Brynner is far from anonymous. His name is so rich – Jules Gaspard D’Estaing – that the locals curtail it to the more peremptory Jewel. And this Brynner is cultured. He plays the spinet (a kind of harpsichord) and the guitar, sings, quotes poetry and cleans up at poker. He is sweet to old ladies, but that is in the guise of righting wrongs. And he is defender of the under-privileged, in this case downtrodden Mexicans. He was himself the son of a slave. The most compelling aspect of this picture is that despite knowing so much about him he remains mysterious.
Brynner wasn’t the two-fisted kind of action hero, but more the guy who could disarm the opposition with a mean stare, and charm women with his brooding good looks. As mentioned, the plot is complicated so to get the best out of the picture you need to kind of set that to one side. Simply put, Confederate soldier George Segal, returning from the Civil War, finds his farm has been appropriated and his sweetheart Ruth Adams (Janice Rule) has married someone else, the one-armed Crane Adams (Clifford David). Brynner is brought in to get rid of Segal who is causing a nuisance to the town’s immoral hierarchy.
So the story, rather than the plot, is the interaction between these four. Crane Adams clearly wants any opportunity to kill off his rival. Equally, Segal wants to win Rule back. And Brynner finds himself unexpectedly drawn to the sad, pensive Rule, abandoning the Santa Fe stagecoach on catching a glimpse of her, only hired when the townsfolk discover his occupation. Brynner has a fantasy of taking her away from all this, the pair of them riding off together, and there is no doubt Rule is tempted as he implants himself in their household and shows himself to have everything her husband, or Segal for that matter, lacks. Perhaps the best thing about the movie is that nothing is clear cut. Our sympathy shifts from Brynner to Segal to Rule. Even when Brynner brings the town’s hierarchy to heel, there is no guarantee that will be enough to win over Rule. And if he cannot have her, what does he have? The Eastwood loner never seems to care about emotional involvement, he just takes what he wants, but the Brynner character is more sensitive and does not want a one-sided relationship based solely on power.
For the movie to work at all, Rule needs to engage our sympathies. Having clearly been somewhat mercenary herself in discarding Segal in favor of Crane Adams (presumably not originally disabled), she needs to portray a woman who is not just going to jump at the next best thing. Rule is especially good, far better than in more showy roles in Alvarez Kelly (1966) and The Chase (1966). Never given the opportunity to verbalize her emotions, nonetheless in scene after scene her quiet anguish is shown on her face. Magnificent Seven alumni Brad Dexter and John Alonzo (later the famed cinematographer) have small parts.
I certainly saw a different picture to the “offbeat but confusing western” viewed by Variety’s critic and possibly, for once, because the passage of time has allowed this film to be seen in a new light. Rather than a morality play in the vein of High Noon, I saw it as a character study of a gunfighter knocking on heaven’s door.
Many of the films made in the 1960s are now available free-to-view on a variety of television channels and on Youtube but if you’ve got no luck there, then here’s the DVD.
To round off my week of celebration of The Magnificent Seven, I’ve made a 10-minute video for Youtube (link below). A number of people contacted me to ask why I wrote the book in the first place. As that was quite unusual in itself, I thought i would explain myself.
A decade ago as a treat to myself I purchased an annual subscription at considerable expense to the archive of daily trade magazine Variety. This allowed me to look back at over 100 years of this legendary publication. I used to just pop around the archive wherever fancy took me. At the time I was – and still am – a box office hound. Every week Variety published upwards of three pages of box office stats, listing how movies performed in all the major cities in America. I was poking around the stats for Butterfield 8 (1960) which delivered sensational figures wherever it opened. Every now and then I would come across a listing for The Magnificent Seven and since that was one of my favorite pictures I back-tracked a few months to see how well it had opened in New York.
I must have spent well over a week going over again and again three months of box office figures. Again and again because I couldn’t find any mention of how well the movie had done in New York. I went through the pages with a fine tooth comb, thinking I must just have missed it. But once I had done that, I came to the conclusion that the movie had not opened in New York at all. In those days, every big picture opened at one of the top theaters in or around Broadway. And The Magnificent Seven counted as a big picture. When I got to the year-end results – Variety published an annual chart – I realized the movie had not done well at all. It was, in fact, a flop.
So I began to wonder why a movie that I had always considered a big hit had been the reverse. I judged it a hit because it was reissued several times. It popped up every time there was a sequel, sometimes in a double bill with another from the series, sometimes dualed with a separate picture. For about 15 years after its release it made regular appearances on the reissue circuit – and this was even after being shown on television in the United States as early as 1963.
It didn’t make any sense. Who would reissue a flop? Why would a flop inspire sequels?
So I dug around a bit more and eventually found out all about the tortuous release history of The Magnificent Seven and my research revealed more of its dramatic history. I became fascinated by the flop that became a hit. It took me more than three years to find out as much as I could about the film from a variety of sources – including the United Artists and Mirisch archives held at the University of Wisconsin, and other trade publications like Box Office, Motion Picture Daily and Motion Picture Herald – and conversations with the screenwriter Walter Bernstein and anybody else I could find who had anything to do with the film. And then it took another year to write the book.
The story behind the making of The Magnificent Seven could have been a thriller itself. Filming was delayed for two years and on the eve of the shoot nearly halted by an actor’s strike, a writer’s strike, interference by the Mexican government and two million-dollar lawsuits. Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and even Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson (then world heavyweight champion) were all considered for roles. Anthony Quinn was fired.
The book also reveals how Brynner became the biggest independent producer in Hollywood, why United Artists hated it and denied it a prestigious premiere in New York and why it subsequently flopped at the box office. Also revealed is the truth behind the Brynner-McQueen feud and the scene-stealing battle among the actors. The landmark study also forensically examines the screenplay and shows for the first time who – out of the seven screenwriters involved – wrote what, as well as providing a critical examination of the direction.
Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of the release of the original The Magnificent Seven, and this marks the end of my week-long tribute to the picture and its impact on the American western.
Timing was the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the second sequel. This was the year of masterpieces such as The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West,True Grit and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as well as 100 Rifles, Support Your Local Sheriff, The Undefeated and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. I reckoned – as I explained in my book The Gunslingers of ’69 – that it was the best-ever year for westerns. But in the face of such competition there was little room for a retread of a retread.
The budget had been reduced even further from the first sequel, now down to a paltry $1.36 million. Director Paul Wendkos had only made two movies in the previous five years, low-budget programmers Johnny Tiger (1966) and Attack on the Iron Coast (1968), and was best known for the innocuous Gidget (1959). Yul Brynner ruled himself out and his place was taken by George Kennedy, making the step up from supporting actor to star, who had gained acclaim – and an Oscar – for Cool Hand Luke (1967).
As before, being cast in the film presented opportunity. James Whitmore (Chuka, 1967), who had the second lead, was the best known but that wasn’t saying much. Apart from Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall, 1973) and Bernie Casey (Hit Man, 1972), none made a subsequent impact. Monte Markham and female lead Wende Wagner were both drawn from television, the former from The Second Hundred Years (1967-1968), the latter The Green Hornet (1966-1967). Making up the numbers were bit part players Reni Santoni (Anzio, 1968) and Scott Thomas (The Thousand Plane Raid, 1969).
The script by Herman Hoffman follows the same lines as previously. This time around imprisoned Mexican revolutionary Fernando Rey (who had played a priest in Return of the Seven) funds the recruitment of the mercenaries. As before, each recruit is afforded an introductory scene. There’s an expert in hand-to-hand combat (Markham), a former slave who is a dynamite expert (Casey), a one-armed gunslinger (Baker), a knife-thrower and a chronically-ill wrangler (Thomas). On arriving at their destination, the mercenaries become less mercenary. A village boy is adopted. The villagers can’t make up their minds whether to welcome or oppose the mercenaries. Wagner provides the love interest as a peasant girl.
Instead of defending the village, the gunmen and trained villagers storm the citadel where Rey is imprisoned. This is well-executed with the help of a Gatling gun and explosives. However, Kennedy was miscast as an ice-cool killer. The picture also suffered from a dumbing-down of the violence. With a better cast and a stronger director, the material might have produced better results. However, as with its immediate predecessor, what’s mostly wrong about the second sequel is its inferiority to the original. Take away those comparisons and like Return of the Seven it remains a very watchable oater.
Given United Artists’ predilection for speedy sequels – the Bond films, the Pink Panthers, the Beatles movies – Return of the Seven took an age to get out of the blocks. Production was in part held up because of abortive plans to make a Broadway musical with Brynner reprising his leading role. At one point it look edas if the sequel would again pair Brynner and McQueen. And at another point it was set as a 1965 shoot with first Larry Cohen (creator of the Branded television series) and then Walter Grauman (633 Squadron, 1964) in the director’s chair.
Production finally got underway in February 1966 in Spain with Burt Kennedy (The Rounders, 1965) in command. But where the budgets for the Bond films increased with every outing, this was on a reduced budget compared to the original. The film was less of a sequel than a remake (even to the extent of re-using Bernstein’s score). The three survivors recruit four others to save a village from a ruthless Mexican rancher. Brynner returned with Robert Fuller from television’s Laramie filling McQueen’s shoes and Spanish actor Julian Mateos making his Hollywood debut standing in for Buchholz.
A decent attempt was made to recapture the magic of the original by casting unknowns who could have a shot at stardom. Jordan Christopher was the pick of the wannabees. Although he had only The Fat Spy (1966) under his belt, he would go on to star alongside Hollywood veteran Jennifer Jones in offbeat drama Angel, Angel Down We Go (1969). While Christopher had the looks Warren Oates (The Shooting, 1966) was half a decade away from top billing although already his off-beat screen charisma brought an unpredictability to the characters he played. Making up the numbers were Claude Akins from television’s Rawhide and veteran Portuguese actor Virgilio Texiera, the former filling the gap left by the broody Charles Bronson, the latter as suave as Robert Vaughn. Perhaps as intriguing for western aficionados was Fernando Rey and Emilio Hernandez who would both become famous screen bad guys, Rey as the drugs kingpin in The French Connection (1971) and Hernandez as Mapache in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).
Certainly, if cast was anything to go by, the ingredients were there and Kennedy would go on to a distinguished career in the genre (The War Wagon, 1967, Support Your Local Sheriff, 1969). But where The Magnificent Seven was a trend-setter, the sequel had nothing new to say. The market in mercenaries had been taken over by The Professionals (1966) and the western revival had been reshaped by movies as varied as Shenandoah (1965), Major Dundee (1965) and Nevada Smith (1966) – the “Dollars” films not released in America until 1967. Part of the problem, of course, was that critics who had buried the original had revised their opinions and were now gunning for something that might trample on that august legend.
But it’s far from suffering from, as Variety maintained, a cliche-ridden script and limp direction. The scenes with the villagers, herded away like slaves, are far grimmer than before and there are some interesting nods to the original. Where Brynner and McQueen rode shotgun on a hearse, here Fuller (the McQueen) character is asked if he will pay for a funeral. While none of the introductions can match The Magnificent Seven, this is altogether a more down-and-dirty world, a country of ruins and cockfighting. The quality of the recruits is lower, Brynner trawling the prison. Honor is in short supply, too. But in chopping pretty much half an hour off the running time, it moves along a fair clip.
Brynner is the standout and the sight of the man in black reaching for his gun still commands the screen. Neither has he lost this humanity and the sense of loss at having left the village is apparent. And while Emilio Hernandez cannot match the panache of Eli Wallach, you cannot help but admire his misplaced sense of honor. The battle scenes are well handled without reaching Sturges’ peak. Had the other actors stepped up to the plate, or if Kennedy had been accorded a bigger budget, it might have been a different story. However, most sequels suffer if all you do is compare them to the original. If you come at this without much reference to its predecessor it still stands up as a good Saturday afternoon matinee.
Return of the Seven is available as a stand-alone DVD but for little more than that cost you might as well get the whole set. Note: here it is called The Return of the Magnificent Seven.
For an action-packed western, The Magnificent Seven begins with a piece of such subtlety that you probably won’t notice it. The credits appear over what looks like a tableau – mountains in the background, ricks of corn in the foreground. After a minute-and-a-half, the tableau comes to life, a tiny figure walking out from behind a corn stack and a few seconds later tiny horsemen – the Mexican bandits about to terrorise the village – enter from the opposite side of the frame. This is a far more subtle picture than generally given credit for. Although the protagonists often verbalize their intentions, it is the visual that gives away hidden emotions. Charles Bronson hands a child a whistle, Steve McQueen looks wistfully at women doing laundry by a stream, Robert Vaughn braces his back against a wall to avoid combat, young villager Rosenda Monteros displays her true feelings for Horst Buchholz by soundlessly dumping food on his plate.
It is a violent film that questions the nature of violence. Whether being a gunman is fulfilling or detrimental. It is a film about standing up or giving in. Those new to bearing arms take the optimistic view, the villagers at first exhilarated by being able to tackle the invaders before falling prey to age-old fears, the young Mexican played by Buchholz idolizing the gunfighters. But the gunfighters themselves are a disillusioned bunch. Their calling has brought them neither wealth, roots nor satisfaction. When we first encounter Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, they are drifters, and impoverished at that. Charles Bronson chops logs to pay for his breakfast, Robert Vaughn is on the run without the wherewithal to pay for his room. Brad Dexter is the stereotypical cowboy, looking for one last big score. Only James Coburn appears self-contained. All are so poor they are willing to take on a job lasting six weeks for a paltry twenty bucks.
They might have a code of honour – but then again they might not. Mexican bandit chief Eli Wallach sees them as no different to himself. The villagers fear them as much as the bandits, to the extent of hiding away their women. Of the seven, Brynner and Coburn are the only two willing to stick to the letter of their contract. The climax of the film might appear to be the battle royal at the end, but, in fact, the emotional highpoint has taken place some time earlier when the hyped-up Buchholz is brought down to earth by the gunfighters’ tally of their achievements – no wives, no children, no homes. The village, a nothing place in the middle of nowhere, has become more than a job, it has turned into a fantasy, a place where Bronson is adopted by children, where Buchholz is seduced into the life he abhors, and where the gunmen will give up their own food to the starving villagers.
The picture is surprisingly full of twists and turns. The bandit leader is far more affable – a benevolent dictator – than such a role normally demands. And he is pretty savvy, so that at points the movie becomes a game of cat-and-mouse. The villagers go from despising the gunmen to hailing them as heroes to betraying them. The seven trap the bandits only to be trapped in turn.
And it is all held together with terrific verve. The tracking camera had never before been used with such skill in a western. There are two brilliantly choreographed knock-‘em-dead battles, added to which are several outstanding sequences. The 20-minutes recruitment section contains three such scenes. Confronted by an act of racism, Brynner and McQueen team up to drive a hearse taking a dead Native American to a graveyard, their sole reward a few swigs of whisky. Then there is the initial dismissal of the callow Buchholz who cannot draw his gun before Brynner has clapped his hands. And there is the knife-throwing expertise of James Coburn.
While the hiring of the others – Harry (Brad Dexter), Bernardo (Charles Bronson) and Lee (Robert Vaughn) – is more prosaic, time is taken to establish their characters. Most movies do not waste time introducing secondary characters, but in taking all the time in the world Sturges gives the audience investment in these men. Courtesy of their actions, Chris, Vin and Britt have nothing to prove to the moviegoer, Harry is set up as the greedy one. Young Chico is most likely to get his head blown off. But that still leaves mystery about the shifty Lee and the inscrutable Bernardo.
Although roughly sticking to the source material, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), The Magnificent Seven lacked its epic running time of three-and-half-hours. Cutting the film back to a trimmer two hours created a western with its own rules. Yul Brynner dressed all in black, chomping on a cigar, barking orders, strode around as if he owned the place. But at the same time displayed the world weariness of his profession. McQueen brought a new kind of persona to the screen. Coburn’s screen charisma was in its early stages but his easy lope and self-assurance stood out. Bronson demonstrated a taciturnity that could have spelled the end of a career never mind the start of one. Buchholz and Robert Vaughn had the hardest parts. The former had to bridge the gap between immaturity and responsibility and to shoulder the picture’s sole romance. The latter was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
The Magnificent Seven was the link between the classic westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks and the more violent offspring of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. In previous westerns, cowboys raced to rescue for love, revenge or out of a sense of duty, never for anything as shabby as money. But this was a more realistic example of the genre and a study of the type of man who ends up as a mercenary. Civilization has driven mavericks down to the border. The past has caught up with them. Perhaps all the future holds is the prospect of one last stand.
At the time few recognized the terrific job director John Sturges had done in marrying action with the psychological and the philosophical. The only Oscar nod was for Elmer Bernstein’s bracing score. Sturges had become something of a western specialist. Six of his last ten films had been westerns. These included modern western Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) with Spencer Tracy, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas and Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) with Douglas again. But this was without doubt his masterpiece. He moved the camera with aplomb, he allowed time for characters to develop, he built up the tension, and he handled the three big action scenes with the skill of a proven battle master. Although the stand-offs against the Mexicans tend to hog the action praise, the hearse sequence deserves equal attention. For a start it is hell of a slow. The horse is going, understandably, at a funereal pace. And the hearse is headed uphill so we have no idea what lies ahead. In terms of structure and execution it is beautifully handled.
This month marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the film. It is supposed to be available on Amazon Prime. But if not there are no shortage of DVD options. You might also like to know that I wrote a book about the making of the film which is available on Kindle and Amazon.
High expectation can kill a picture. Low expectation can have the opposite result. I came at The Appaloosa with the latter attitude in mind. I knew the picture had been a big flop and that critics had carped – as they had done through most of the 1960s – about the performance of Marlon Brando.
Neither was director Sidney J. Furie’s style to everyone’s taste. And it seemed an odd subject – Texan takes on Mexican warlord to recover a stolen horse.
It is surely a slow burn, but it certainly worked well beyond my anticipation. First of all, Brando’s performance came across as natural, not mannered. Secondly, this was a real character. He was not a John Wayne striding into action to protect the underdog or a woman or out of some goddam principle.
At first it did seem odd that he placed so much importance on the horse given that said warlord (John Saxon) had offered him a more than fair price for it. But in one brilliant two-minute scene, expertly directed and with virtually no close-ups – the actor caught mostly with his back to the camera or in silhouette – we discover why. Brando has been such a disappointment to his father that bringing home such an animal was proof that he had made something of himself.
The second aspect of this intriguing picture was that the warlord placed so much importance on this particular horse when he could easily buy any horse he wanted. But he was faced with losing face. His wife Anjanette Comer had tried to escape from him on the horse and the only remedy was to persuade the watching federales that Brando had previously sold him the horse.
When Brando refuses, Saxon takes the horse by force. Brando, in retaliation, and to save his own sense of pride, tries to take it back. He is not represented as a superhuman John Wayne or savage Clint Eastwood, but an ordinary guy who soon finds himself out of his depth. The first time he fires his rifle he misses by a mile.
Nor is he burdened with an over-enlarged empathy gland. He not only refuses to help Comer, but steadfastly refuses to take her with him, not even as far as the border, until in another of the film’s lengthy scenes she explains the reasons for her escape attempt.
Few films have exceeded it for atmosphere. This Mexico is grim, pitiless. Hostility and suspicion are endemic. Women are abused and discarded. The standout scene is Saxon and Brando arm-wrestling over scorpions, played out against a soundtrack of scraping chairs and the poisonous insects scrabbling on the table.
This is a brooding western played out by the actor with the best eye for brooding in the business. Furie is gifted – or afflicted depending on your point of view – with an eye for the unusual camera angle. Here I think the gift not the affliction is on show.
It was just happenstance that I watched this and The Chase (1966) back-to-back and I can’t for the life of me see what on earth got the critics so rattled about Brando’s mid-decade performances. This is realistic acting at his best. Where John Wayne or Clint Eastwood present a superhuman screen persona, even if for part of a picture they are downtrodden, Brando was happy to play very human characters. In both pictures he is just an ordinary joe – forced into action by circumstance.
This sometimes turns up on TCM. Otherwise there’s a very decent DVD.
It says a lot about stardom that Oscar-winner William Holden virtually single-handedly redeems Edward Dmytryk’s Civil War western. And this was at a time when the actor’s career was in freefall, not having had a hit since The World of Suzie Wong (1960). Although his good looks personified him as a matinee idol, many of his best performances came when he was playing against type, as a shady character, such as in this instance.
Dmytryk whose career encompassed The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Young Lions (1958) was on an opposite career trajectory after box office hits The Carpetbaggers (1964) and Gregory Peck thriller Mirage (1965). Between them, Holden and Dmytryk just about save what was a misconceived project, an original screenplay by Franklin Coen (The Train, 1965). That it was based on a true story did not make it any better an idea.
The essential narrative is that Holden has driven a couple thousand head of cattle from Mexico to deliver to Union troops. Holden plays an “Irish senor” (as defined in the title song) whose Mexican origins provides an excuse to consider the United States an enemy, positioning him as a neutral in the conflict, allowing him to justify his profiteering. Confederate colonel Richard Widmark plans to steal the herd. Had Holden been a patriot the story would have knuckled down to him trying to thwart such plans, but since he’s a free agent with no allegiance except to himself the film has to take another route. So this involves Holden being captured by Widmark in a bid to turn the Confederate soldiers into cowboys capable of driving the stolen herd.
That would set the film down a fairly standard narrative route of training raw recruits such as Holden would follow in The Devil’s Brigade (1968). But this film evades such a simple format. All we ever learn about the intricacies of handling cattle is that you need a hat and have to be able to sing. Instead, this is a more thoughtful picture about honor versus self-interest, about the human casualties of war. Unlike most westerns it’s not about shoot-outs and fairly obvious good guys and bad guys. In the main it’s a drama about conflicting interests and often how good guys will do bad things in the name their beliefs.
The film doesn’t take sides. Do we root for the Union soldiers fighting to free slaves or the romantic version of the Confederacy? Do we root for the immoral selfish Holden because he’s had a finger shot off as a way of bringing him to heel or do our sympathies lie with the upstanding one-eyed Widmark who has given so much for his cause?
Holden is excellent, easing into the world-weary character he would project more fully in The Wild Bunch (1969). And I like his delivery, the pauses between words as if they are occurring to him for the first time rather than rattling them off as is the way of so many stars. Janice Rule is good as the errant girlfriend who feels let down by Widmark’s honor – and who is open to seduction by Holden – and has her own ideas about what she deserves from the war. Although it’s tempting to say we’ve seen this craggy Widmark characterization too many times before, here he adds a further emotional layer as a man who eventually faces up to the personal sacrifices he has been forced to make.
Action fans will be amply rewarded by the ending as Holden attempts to outwit Widmark.
You might also be interested in how this movie was marketed – see the Pressbook/Marketing section article published in tandem with this.
There’s a fair chance you can catch up with this movie for free on one of the Sony Movie channels but if you don’t want to wait or want to enjoy it at its best check out the DVD.